AdventurerBarbara Hillary

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Born in New York, her father died when Hillary was a baby, and she grew up in poverty. But “there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home,” she said later: she spent much of her time reading. So much so that she breezed through college and a Master’s degree, became a nurse, and spent 55 years in the career. In the meantime, she beat back breast cancer (in her 20s) and lung cancer (in her 60s). Once retired, she said she wanted some adventure. She says she learned three great lessons in life: “One, mind your own business. Two, maintain a sense of humor. And three, tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed.”

Hillary at the North (sans gloves) and South Poles. (Photos: her web site)

Hillary seemed to enjoy the cold. After dog-sledding in Quebec and photographic expeditions to photograph polar bears in Manitoba, she discovered that no black woman had ever made it to the North Pole, and vowed she would be the first. She didn’t know how to ski (“It wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem.”), didn’t have the money for it, and had lost a quarter of her breathing capacity to cancer. To do it, she worked out, improved her diet, and raised the funds, mostly from donations. She made it, on April 23, 2007. “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement,” she said later. “I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.” So excited that she took off her gloves and suffered minor frostbite. Hillary became a popular motivational speaker, telling her story. But she was still not satisfied: on January 6, 2011, she arrived at the South Pole, making her the first black woman to the North Pole, the first black woman to the South Pole, and of course the first black woman to make it to both. She admitted she got a lot of her calories on the latter trip by eating copious amounts of milk chocolate. After all, she said, “If I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?” She died at a hospital in Queens on November 23, at 88.

From This is True for 1 December 2019